Can someone define it? This should be viewed as a complimentary thread to the what is freedom thread.
So, is slavery “legal ownership” of another human being? Is it forcing a human being to do something against thier will? What if slavery is illegal but someone illegally owns someone. I mean if slavery means someone can’t do what they want, well hell I want to switch places with Hugh Heffner, so am I being persecuted as a slave because Heff won’t let me?
What is slavery? How about the historical answer?
Every human society has had some form of slavery. Most societies had very extensive laws to deal with slaves (e.g. Sharia). In the West, many forms of slavery had a limited lifetime – 7 years was common, as well as conditions on treatment of slaves’ children: Children of slaves were automatically the children – not slaves – of the slave owner, which meant that hereditary slavery was not common. In the Arab world slavery was also wrapped up in religion which made it longer term and there were even whole tribes who were slaves. Africa in particular had a long history of slavery. Saudi Arabia only outlawed it (and unpopularly too) in 1969, while it still is practiced in many parts of Africa.
The rise of Mercantilism in the New World caused a sea change in attitudes towards slavery. In 1600 most slaves in English colonies were Irish, for instance. French and Spanish exploitation of Indians and Blacks meant that the institution of slavery as we know it started to come into existence. Blacks were imported from African slave traders as premium workers, who were thought to be largely immune to malaria and other diseases. As such, Blacks were not released from their bondage and their children were not either. A common rewriting of US history is that the first English settlers were slaveholders. No, the Puritans had strict prohibitions on most forms of slavery on religious grounds since their work ethic dictated that they must get into heaven by the sweat of their own brows. I mention this since we have an historical account of the British introduction of French and Spanish plantation practices in the second half of the 17th century. The South was not nearly as thickly settled as the North and Puritanical ire at slavery were very well recorded – the consensus of the people living in the North at the time was hot resentment. Later, when the revolution came, it was universally felt that the only way to get rid of slavery was to get rid of the British Crown that supported it and had changed laws to make it more pernicious. One section of the original Declaration of Independence was quite hotly anti-slavery, but by placing the blame at King George’s feet it was felt that the Declaration would be perceived as high treason by the British people themselves as opposed to merely a break over Parliament’s treatment of the Colonies, effectively stopping any means of rapprochement.
FWIW only about 5% of the slaves that made it to the New World ended up in North America. The sheer scope of the slave trade was immense and is not fully appreciated.
Moralizing aside, I will tell you what I think is going on with slavery. The reason is that it is a very emotional issue and the moral outrage it engenders skews perception. Starting with medieval slavery, most of what we now think of as services were performed by slaves – they did something useful and in return were given what amounted to a stable living experience. Think of a slave as the ultimate household appliance: s/he can cook, clean, chop wood and tell the kids bedtime stories. A recent trend among the truly affluent is a return to domestic servants, btw. Any way, if you had 10 children who were starving, selling them off to the local clergy or noble was actually not a bad move for everyone. Before you get huffy, remember that there were no such things as schooling and most people never went more than a couple of miles from their birthplace, so a bad turn in crops was probably pretty much past the ability of the locals to deal with. There is a reason that famine (either widespread or due to extreme poverty) was considered divine retribution and everyone knew exactly how terrible one would be. It is important to understand that commoners bought into this system voluntarily and nobody saw it as evil. Up until the middle of the 18th century you will find nary an ill word about slavery. The Taliban actually re-introduced it in Afghanistan to a pretty warm reception (at least among the slaveholders!)
Mercantilism – which is what most of you think of when you say the word “Capitalism” – tried to institutionalize services in an industrial capacity. The model of masses of slaves working huge plantations was a necessary outgrowth of the increase in trade and the rise of mass society. There is nothing to prevent having a wholly slave-based mass society and the Aztecs were pretty close to being one. The Enlightenment drastically changed our attitudes towards destiny (hence the “freedom” thread) and this use of humans as draft animals became completely vilified. It was realized that an hereditary service class for production farming is a huge waste of humanity. What destroyed this system was industrialization.* Machines were cheaper and much more reliable than humans, plus they didn’t run away or have revolutions (which is why Sci-Fi like the Terminator franchise is so intriguing). The US War Between The States was the South’s attempt to keep industrialization out. I’ll state it now, my readings in History convince me that if industrialization were to go away tomorrow, we’d slowly revert to slavery, albeit under another name. This point is crucial to understanding slavery and its demise, since conventional wisdom has it that sheer moral force from the North ended it in the South. Slavery was ebbing everywhere in the West by this time and the British and the Americans were forcing traditional societies to free their slaves often at gunpoint.**
Are you slaves? No you are not. Free will is different from slavery and the fact that sometimes you have to do things you do not like has nothing to do with this as an institution. Here you sit at your computer pondering how free you are. Oh c’mon people. Do not confuse duties and obligations with slavery. I provide for my kids and am therefore bound to a job, but this is a Hell of a lot nicer life than living hand to mouth. Most of what I am reading in this discussion reflects a lack of understanding of the conditions of slavery more than anything else. Hrmph.
And as always, I might just be full of shit…
- The magazine BBC History did an article on the Industrial Revolution and was genuinely puzzled by the fact that all contemporary accounts of it were very, very positive. The people living then knew how it was changing their lives. Now we have the benefits of it but can barely imagine a world without it. It seems all anyone has absorbed about this period is the criticism of it, but yet very few people are running to join the Amish. It seems we are more than happy to talk about the evils of the machine age from the comforts of our own living room.
** Arab slavers took several million Westerners as slaves from raids which lasted well into the 19th century (whole sections of the coasts in Spain and Italy were depopulated). The first large-scale US military operation abroad was aimed at stopping these which is why the Marines have a line about “the halls of Tripoli” in their anthem owning to their participation against the Barbary Corsairs. Arab leaders did stop the raids but often against violent opposition from their own citizens. The infliction of Emancipation on foreign cultures was a strong reason given in favor of colonialism. If you are scratching your head on how this could possibly be the case, you probably went to US public schools…